How & Why Do Leaves Change Color?

Despite their astonishing record of losses when dealing with lumberjacks and beavers, trees are pretty tough customers. Their trunks, branches, roots and twigs are all more than capable of enduring a winter's worth of freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and hail. Their leaves, though? Eh, not so tough. The broad, thin leaves of a broadleaf tree (like a maple, an oak, a birch, or a poplar) are an Achilles' heel when winter comes, and are vulnerable to freezing and damage from the elements. In order to survive, the trees either have to somehow protect the delicate leaves or shed them.

Evergreen trees—your pines, spruces, firs, etc.— went the protection route. Their leaves, or needles, are covered in a waxy coating to resist freezing, allowing them to live for years or even decades before falling off and being replaced. The leaves of deciduous trees, on the other hand, are cast off with the arrival of winter. The chemical processes that prepare them for their send-off also treat us to the season's vibrant colors.

Color Coding

Green: The green color of leaves throughout spring and summer comes from chlorophyll, a pigment vital to photosynthesis.

As we get closer to autumn and some parts of the planet get fewer hours of sunlight, trees respond by stopping the food-making photosynthesis process and slowing the production of chlorophyll until, eventually, they stop producing it altogether and the green color of the leaf fades

leaves-mapleYellow and Orange: Along with chlorophyll, there are yellow and orange pigments, carotene and xanthophyll, inside some trees' leaves. For most of the year, these pigments are masked by chlorophyll, but as the chlorophyll breaks down and the green color dissipates, the yellow to orange colors become visible.

Red: Another class of pigment that occurs in leaves is the anthocyanins. Anthocyanins, unlike carotene and xanthophyll, are not present in leaves year-round. It isn't until the chlorophyll begins breaking down that the plant begins to synthesize anthocyanin. Why do trees begin producing a different pigment in leaves they're getting ready to lose? The prevailing theory is that anthocyanins protect leaves from sun damage, lower their freezing point, allow them to remain on the tree longer, and buy the tree more time to recover nutrients from its leaves. The colors that anthocyanins produce are dependent on the pH of the leaves' cell sap. Very acidic sap results in a bright red color, while less acidic sap leads to a purplish red.

Brown: The humdrum color is the result of waste products trapped in the leaves.

That covers the basics of how each of the colors can be produced. But which color we ultimately see depends on several factors, such as"¦

Species: Certain colors are characteristic of particular tree species and can be used to help identify the type of tree you're looking at. Oak leaves turn red, brown, or russet, hickories turn golden bronze, poplars turn golden yellow, dogwoods turn a purplish red, beeches turn a light yellow/tan, birches turn bright yellow, sugar maples turn orange-red, black maples turn a glowing yellow, and red maples turn scarlet. Some trees, notably elms, don't go through much color change at all; there's just a dull brown and then the leaf is gone with the wind.

Weather: The temperature and moisture levels a tree is exposed to before and during the time its leaves' chlorophyll breaks down can affect color. Sunny days and cool nights favor anthocyanin production and bright red leaves. On cloudy days, anthocyanin isn't as chemically active and allows the orange or yellow pigments to take center stage.

Geography: Autumn leaves in Europe tend to be mostly yellow, but the US and East Asia seem to favor red leaves. Scientists from Israel and Finland recently put forth a theory about this color difference in the journal New Phytologist1. The scientists think that some 35 million years ago—amid a series of ice ages—many tree species evolved to become deciduous and produced red leaves to ward off insects. In North America and Asia, north-to-south mountain chains enabled the north and south spread of plants and animals corresponding with the advance and retreat of ice. In Europe, east-to-west mountain ranges like the Alps trapped plant and animal life. Many tree species (and the insects that depended on them) died out when the ice advanced. At the end of repeated ice ages, say the scientists, the tree species that survived didn't need red leaves to cope with the insects that were left, so they stopped producing red pigments and stuck with yellow.

The Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground


While all this color changing and autumn magic is going on, the tree is preparing to cast off its leaves. Around the same time that chlorophyll production slows down, the veins that transport nutrients and water to the leaf from the rest of the tree get closed off. A layer of cells at the base of the leaf stem, called the separation layer, swells and forms a cork-like material, gradually severing the tissue that connects the leaf to the branch. The leaf falls off and the tree seals the cut—so when the leaf is blown off or falls from its own weight, a leaf scar is left behind.

1Lev-Yadun, S and Holopainen, J. (2009). Why red-dominated autumn leaves in America and yellow-dominated autumn leaves in Northern Europe? New Phytologist Volume 183(3): 506-512. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02904.x
Special thanks to Damian Dockery, who provided the foliage photos. See more of his work at

Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?

Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:

The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?

As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out

If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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